Our world's become an existential joke

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 March, 2012, 12:00am


As a failed philosophy student, I can't help but notice how people don't use words like existence and existential in popular English-speaking culture the way they used to. When I was a student in 1980s North America, those words were usually associated with French existentialism, popularised as much by Jean-Paul Sartre as by Woody Allen. Now, people worry about deadlier matters like 'existential threats'.

Not many people had read Sartre's Being and Nothingness then - or now - but everyone in college remembered Allen's skit about sexually frustrated intellectuals who hired brainy prostitutes with advanced degrees to discuss existentialism and the meaninglessness of life. The girls charged extra if the discussions got too technical.

I was reminded of this when a furore broke out in the US in November over a school's invitation to Sasha Grey, a retired porn actress, to read to first-graders. To defend herself as an intellectual, she posted a photo on her blog of her holding up a copy of Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, one of her favourite books, but thankfully not one she read to the children. But existentialism is pass?. If Grey wants to sell her brain like many think tank intellectuals in the US, she needs to brush up on global terrorism, the sovereign debt crisis and Iran. Pundits have often described the debt crisis as 'an existential threat' to the European Union, and Iran's nuclear programme as such to Israel.

Larry David of Curb Your Enthusiasm fame, who is Jewish and heir to Allen's self-obsessive comedy, does not joke about existentialism, but annihilation. In a recent episode, he is smitten by a buxom fast-food proprietress, who is also a Palestinian radical. 'You know how you are always attracted to people who reject you,' he says. 'But this woman doesn't just reject you - she denies your right to EXIST! Is that a turn-on or what?' Is peaceful co-existence not sexy enough?